When not indulging in cloying string arrangements or abusing lyrical clichés, Damien Rice's 9 is mostly tedious.
"Down on my knees, arms wrapped tight around the sides of my head, I begged for clemency, for forgiveness of past sins, for whatever it would take to halt the horrid stream of sound".
The above sentence is excerpted not from the memoirs of a former Guantanamo detainee tortured by prolonged exposure to Britney Spears at ear-splitting decibels. Rather, it is the true-life account (only slightly dramatized for emphasis) of my having to listen to "Elephant", track three of 9, the sophomore album from Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice. As a critic, I feel almost baited by the lines: "What's the point of this song? / Or even singing?". Those are both excellent questions, Damien. I'm puzzling on them myself. What's the point of writing another song that rhymes "lie" with "die" and "crazy" with "baby"? Which would be okay if he were writing a slyly sarcastic pop song that knowingly references the lazy lexicon of rock's written word. But Rice is actually sincere.
Still, he's capable of some good lines. From the lead single, "9 Crimes", an overwrought ditty that is nonetheless greatly ameliorated by guest vocalist Lisa Hannigan, we get: "Give my gun away when it's loaded". It's probably a metaphor, and I'm not sure for what, but I like the line anyway. For every good couplet or phrase, however, Rice lets us down with a stinker. In "Accidental Babies", we get the sharp details of "Do you brush your teeth before you kiss? / Do you miss my smell? / And is he bold enough to take you on?". But we also get this high school poetry in miserably clichéd rhyme: "Well I know I make you cry / And I know sometimes you wanna die". Those lines are hollow and trite to the point of being pollutants to language. Oh, Damien. How did you fall so far in just three little years?
Rice's first release, O, came out in 2003. That debut was a lovely, melancholic folk record, with tastefully arranged strings that groaned and sighed with resigned melancholy, either matching or balancing his vocals, which slid readily from a whisper to an unguarded plea. All of the elements of that recording were held in balance, tenderness and drama doled out sparingly and appropriately.
What Rice did well on his first album he screws up horribly on this cloying, sappily orchestrated, often musically patronizing follow-up. The arrangements on 9 are meant to guide our emotional responses to his music, but are, instead, smarmily bullying (see Patch Adams, 1998 … no, wait, for the love of all that is pure and good, please don't actually see Patch Adams!!). With much of the material from O appearing in the soundtrack to the Jude Law and Julia Roberts movie Closer, Rice has clearly gotten carried away with the idea of his music being filmic. The big moments he shoots for on 9 are flimsily erected, however, and topple from the weight of their own absurdity. Yes, sometimes the swelling strings here actually make me laugh. And, when I cry, it's not for the reason that Damien Rice would prefer. It's not because I've been struck by the poignancy of the moment he's revealed. It's because, in order to review this disc, I have to listen to Rice's strained wailing at the dramatic climax of "Elephants" or his overdriven shouts (they're supposed to sound, maybe, industrial?) on the weirdly raucous "Me, My Yoke, and I". He showed fine range before and proved himself capable of careful modulation. On this new album, Rice settles for wrong notes, perhaps hoping he'll come off a little bit freak folk. No, man. Tin-eared is more like it.
Not all of 9 is obnoxious, though. Much of it is merely boring; the unmemorable tunes failing to elevate beyond everyday, coffee house, bland competency. And, admittedly, some moments are fairly pretty. The record's closing number, "The Rat within the Grain", features elegant fingerstyle guitar playing, a bittersweet vocal melody, and none of the orchestral dynamics that sink much of the rest of the disc. "Coconut Skins" is another charmer, with its full strumming and rousing "la, la, la"'s. While those couple of cuts save the disc from worthlessness, going two for eleven is bad even in baseball. As the percentage of worthwhile songs on an album from a major label singer-songwriter, that figure is miserable. We expect this kind of ratio from the likes of Britney, and that is why her music is used to break down the wills of (alleged) Muslim extremists. Rice's latest effort, meanwhile, is mostly just disappointing. Sure, if I were forced to endure "Elephant" on repeat for 30 minutes, I'd divulge state secrets. But the wholly awful tracks here are balanced by the couple of winners. Among those cuts that are either pretty good or wincingly bad are a whole lot of songs that are bland with a splash of annoyance. Damien Rice's 9 is, simply, tedious.